The Unseen Danger of Groupthink

The Unseen Danger of Groupthink
Photo by Omar Flores / Unsplash

In my quest to understand the interplay between leadership and team dynamics, I have tackled the phenomenon of "groupthink". Ironically, this concept often creeps unnoticed into agile teams, which are usually celebrated for their commitment to adaptability and collaboration.

The Invisible Threat of Groupthink

Introduced by William H. Whyte Jr. in 1952[1], the term "groupthink" epitomizes a situation in which the collective desire for unity and harmony within a team inadvertently stifles individual creativity and independent thinking. In an effort to protect the group's identity, teams shy away from dissenting viewpoints, which can have serious consequences, from negative business decisions to personal ones.

Research by Marlene Turner and Anthony Pratkanis[2] provides valuable insights. They found that groupthink thrives in highly cohesive groups, especially when there's a dominant leader, high stress levels, and low self-esteem among members. Interestingly, this behavior appears to be a form of social conformity that comes into play when a group perceives a threat to its shared identity.

But within the apparent threat of groupthink lies an intriguing question: How does it infiltrate even the most agile teams?

Breaking the Illusion of Groupthink: The Value of Dissent

Combating groupthink requires a careful balancing act: promoting psychological safety while encouraging people to challenge the status quo. This can only be achieved if different ideas are not only encouraged, but celebrated.

Adam Grant's suggestion of a "challenge network"[3] is a powerful antidote to groupthink. By inviting disagreement and encouraging different perspectives, you can loosen the toxic grip of groupthink. Leaders should share their own ideas later in the decision-making process to allow for a broader range of ideas in the early stages of planning.

Promoting psychological safety within a group frees creative thinking from the shackles of fear and rejection. This balance between maintaining group harmony and encouraging dissenting ideas is key to a truly innovative team. Techniques such as anonymous suggestion schemes and recognition for innovative thinking can foster this supportive environment.

Dismantling Groupthink: Tools and Techniques.

Structured methods such as the double diamond approach in Design Thinking and Liberating Structures can prove invaluable in combating groupthink. The double diamond method encourages divergent and convergent thinking at different stages, generating a wealth of ideas before focusing on the best ones.

Liberating Structures provide innovative ways to interact within a group, ensuring the active participation and involvement of all members. This approach promotes a dynamic exchange of ideas that gives due consideration to minority opinions and reduces the likelihood of groupthink.

In addition, understanding the impact of majority opinion on individual decision making, as gleaned from experiments such as the Asch's Conformity Experiment , provides critical insights into how to consciously mitigate groupthink.

A new way of looking at agile teams.

While agile teams are known for their collaboration and adaptability, it's important to recognize that these very characteristics can blur the lines and allow groupthink to inadvertently creep in. Groupthink can have a significant impact on collective decision making, leading to irrational, risky, or even illegal outcomes.

However, I strongly believe that by fostering an environment that encourages open dialogue and values diversity of thought, agile teams can effectively navigate this difficult terrain. The essence of effective teamwork in an agile environment lies not in "groupthink" but in "group synthesis," where each team member brings unique ideas to the table and contributes to a collective wisdom that is much richer and more nuanced.

Let's celebrate diversity in teams, challenge conformity, and create an environment where the voices of mavericks are encouraged, not silenced. The true value of a team lies in its diversity of thought. In this way, we not only avoid groupthink, but also harness the true power of collective intelligence.

  1. Whyte, W. H. Jr. (1952) Groupthink. Fortune, March . pp. 114–117, 142, 146. ↩︎

  2. Turner, M. E., & Pratkanis, A. R. (1998). Twenty-Five Years of Groupthink Theory and Research: Lessons from the Evaluation of a Theory. Organizational behavior and human decision processes73(2-3), 105–115. ↩︎

  3. Grant, A. (2021). Think again: the power of knowing what you don’t know. London: WH Allen. ↩︎